Tatler Hong Kong
SINGAPORE: WOVEN HISTORY
In the still morning, a rattan chair, 70cm wide and shaped like a cockle shell, sat on the garden patio, ready for the prime minister to take his daily cup of tea. This was the beloved seat that the late Lee Kuan Yew—he of austere dwellings at 38 Oxley Road—bought in the 1960s and used for two decades, till age necessitated its repair by skilled hands.
Delicate fixes like these, on sentimental pieces from a simpler era, have formed the bulk of business for Chen Foon Kee, the 74-year-old owner of Chun Mee Lee Rattan Furniture, ever since the 1990s, when regional rattan imports plummeted and changing tastes tilted the scales in favour of wood, metal and plastic.
But Singapore’s earliest years of nation-building were the heyday for household pieces woven from stems of the vine-like Southeast Asian palm, abundantly available at the time, making shell chairs like Lee’s a staple in every flat. “For a rattan craftsman to be considered skilled, their products must be comfortable,” Chen tells Tatler. “A chair, for example, is beautiful only if it’s ergonomic. Can a customer sit in it for hours without fatigue? The shape should be balanced and proportionate, aligning perfectly with the contours of the body.”
Chen is one of a handful of artisans on the island still capable of traditional rattan work; another is Goh Kiok Seng of Hak Sheng & Co. There is also a smattering of firms that still hawk rattan goods made in neighbouring countries— vestiges of an era of craftsmanship that flourished in 1960s and 1970s Singapore, as rattan flowed from Malaysia and Indonesia through Singapore’s port to the world.
It was in these decades that the young Chen shadowed and watched his father at work as the elder Hakka man honed his craft alongside other emerging artisans in rattan frame-making, weaving and colouring. These craftsmen came from every community—malay, Indian and Chinese. Little English literature exists on the intricacies of rattan-weaving in Singapore. Experts simply showed apprentices how to structure thick frames and create sturdy nets over the course of several years, according to a craftsman’s account recorded in Singapore’s National Archives.
The lack of formal instruction made things tricky for product designer Ng Si Ying when she embarked on a mission to elevate the material into an artistic medium in 2017. Curious about the “forgotten” native plant, the fine arts graduate sought to push it beyond formulaic designs that had remained unchanged for eons, making her a disruptive anomaly in a sunset trade.
“I want [rattan to be] a material that finds its place not only in the household kitchen, but also within the gallery,” says 30-year-old Ng. “To know what can be done with rattan today requires that we look into the weaving techniques—some of them forgotten—that have gracefully endured for thousands of years.”
She is intent on uncovering hundreds of new ways that strands of rattan can be interlaced, knotted and twisted to architectural effect in jewellery, ceramics, umbrella
handles, Airpod cases—and, in one unusual instance, a sling for a toy puffin, exhibited in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum as part of a larger show. “I am inclined to believe that there is a shifting perspective: that more people are looking at rattan as a versatile material with undiscovered potential, and less as it being just a product,” she says. “I hope to examine the alternative roles in life that rattan could potentially fulfil.”
There are signs rattan is back in vogue, buoyed by a wave of trendy bohemian interiors in the west, heavy on handcrafted textures and tropical influence. Back home, buyers swept up Singapore fashion label Ong Shunmugam’s entire stock of a modern take on rattan chairs. Meanwhile, interior design firms are hot for woven rattan cabinets, observes Rattan Capital boss Aw Hong Hui. In 2011, the 36-year-old, second-generation owner relaunched his father’s rattan furniture import business, which had been shuttered in the ’90s, and now manufactures from Indonesia and ships globally, furnishing hotels in Java and the Kate Spade store in The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands.
“Rattan is beginning to become esteemed in the market. Younger folk don’t know about it, so it’s new— special to them,” he says. “Rattan has been part of our life since before the independence of Singapore; it’s just that as we get more modernised, people are not familiar with their own culture.”
Despite his age, Chen, too, is trying something new: last year, he knitted a whimsical, lifesize nest for the Singapore Garden Festival. But despite the promising exploration of where rattan weaving can go, he is gently pessimistic about the future, having witnessed the industry’s drawn-out demise. “Rattan has sentimental value, and customers still like it,” he acknowledges. “But weaving skills are in decline. If you want to buy rattan furniture, you can import it. As for locally made things, there aren’t any any more.”